Americans like war heroes, especially in our presidents. Of the 43 men who have served as commander-in-chief, more than half saw military service. On this President’s Day, we’ll look back at presidential service in the Civil War.
Nine of our nation’s presidents, more than 20 percent, had a connection to the war. The first, in terms of when they were president, left office before the war began. Millard Fillmore left the White House in 1853. When the war came, he supported the Union and was commander of the Union Continentals with the rank of captain. The unit was a home guard in the Buffalo, New York, area whose main function was for ceremony and to escort other units heading off to war.
The next president to have a connection to the war was Abraham Lincoln. While he didn’t fight in the war, he was, of course, intimately involved. He had served in the militia during the Black Hawk War in 1832, was elected captain, but did not see combat. During the Civil War, he got involved in war, even coming under fire at Fort Stevens in Washington during Jubal Early’s attack in 1864.
From the time Lincoln was taken from office through assassination, seven of the next eight men to be president had participated in the war in some way. This ran up through the death, also by assassination, of William McKinley in 1901. It began with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, was the only southern senator to remain with the Union. In 1862, President Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee with a rank of brigadier general. It turned out to be a good choice. When Confederate forces threatened the capital at Nashville in 1862, Johnson worked to keep it in Union hands. The soldier who would see to that was Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who wanted to abandon the city. The city was saved and a military commission that later investigated Buell’s actions in Kentucky and Tennessee gave credit for saving Nashville to Andrew Johnson. In 1864 Johnson was chosen as Lincoln’s running mate in the November election. The victory would eventually propel the Tennesseean to the chief executive’s office. After being impeached by radicals of his own Republican party, Johnson sought the Democratic nomination for the election of 1868. He wasn’t through with politics, however, and won election to the U.S. Senate in 1874. But his term was short as he died in July 1875 while visiting family in Tennessee.
Johnson’s successor in the White House was Ulysses S. Grant, who many considered to be the biggest hero of the war. After success in the western theater and the capture of Vicksburg, Grant had moved east and drove his armies against Robert E. Lee until Lee no longer had the ability to fight back. As a true war hero, he was a logical choice for the first Republican candidate after the war. He won by a wide margin in 1868 and by a landslide in his reelection bid of 1872. Grant is famously known as a failure in most everything he did before finding success as a military leader in the war. His presidency today is remembered most for rampant corruption. Grant was not found to be personally involved, but it has tainted his term in office ever since. After leaving office he wound up bankrupt about the same time he found out he had throat cancer. In an effort to provide for his family after he was gone, the former general began writing his memoirs of the war, to be published by Mark Twain. Though seriously ill, Grant continued working on his recollections. He finished the manuscript for the second of the two volumes and sent it off to the printer. Five days later, he died. He was successful as the sale of the books restored financial security to his family.
After Grant left office, the centennial year of 1876 saw the election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Ohio-born like his predecessor, Hayes volunteered when the Civil War began. He served in the 23rd Ohio Infantry, eventually becoming the regiment’s third colonel. By the time the war ended, Hayes had been wounded four times and had risen to the rank of major general.
His election as president in 1876 is one of the most contested presidential elections in history. When the votes were counted, he was behind his opponent Samuel J. Tilden in the popular vote and with 20 electoral votes to go, he was behind there as well. That was when it got interesting. The remaining electoral votes were in dispute. In the end, there was apparently a deal in which the Democratic Party conceded the election to Hayes in return for a guarantee that Hayes would pull Federal troops out of the South, thus ending Reconstruction. It was the last time Hayes had to worry about it. He had stated he would not seek a second term and retired to his home in Ohio after four years.
In 1880 the country elected another Republican and another Ohio native in James A. Garfield. When the Civil War began, Garfield sought an officer’s commission. He had to wait, but was eventually rewarded with a lieutenant colonelcy and command of a regiment. Before the end of 1861 he was given command of a brigade. While serving in the army, Garfield was elected to the House of Representatives in 1862. Promoted to the rank of major general, Garfield was in Washington in 1863 and discussed his future with President Lincoln. Though he wished to continue in the army, he decided to resign and take up his seat in Congress. He was successful in the House and in 1878 was elected to his ninth term. The following year when John Sherman vacated is Senate seat, Garfield was elected and moved to the upper house of Congress.
A year later he was running for president and won a close election. His service as president would not last. His became the second shortest term when, on July 2, 1881, he was shot in the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington. The wounds would prove mortal, but not for a while. It wasn’t until September 19th that the president died.
Upon Garfield’s death, the presidency officially went to Chester A. Arthur. When the Civil War broke out, Arthur was serving on the military staff of the governor of New York. It had been a political favor that didn’t seem too significant in 1860. It became much more important the next year when war came. Arthur was given the rank of brigadier general and assigned to the quartermaster department. He was good at his job of providing equipment and housing for the troops pouring into New York City. So good, in fact, that by July 1862 he was elevated to quartermaster general for the State of New York. Arthur could have served in combat when he was elected colonel of the 9th New York Infantry, but the governor requested that Arthur remain at his duties in New York. Arthur agreed to do so. Though Arthur had done a good job, it was a political appointment, and when a new governor took office in 1863 Arthur was out of a job. He returned to his law practice.
When James Garfield ran for president, he felt he needed the support of New York. He chose Arthur as his running mate to gain that support. Arthur was actually Garfield’s second choice, the first having declined. Arthur was also advised to decline the offer as it was assumed Garfield would lose. Arthur accepted, stating that “The office of vice-president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.” What must he have thought upon Garfield’s death and his rise to the presidency? Not having the support of the party to run for his own term, Arthur returned to his law practice in New York City. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1886 at the age of 57.
The election in 1884 brought to the presidency a non-veteran of the war. Grover Cleveland was of military age, being 24 when the war began. When the Conscription Act passed in 1863, Cleveland was serving as an assistant district attorney and hired a substitute to take his place.
A veteran and another Ohioan returned to the presidency in the next election in 1888 with the election of Benjamin Harrison. Harrison, who moved to Indianapolis when he was 21, helped recruit the 70th Indiana Infantry and became its colonel. Harrison was promoted to brigade command for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and was promoted to brigadier general in March 1865.
Harrison served in the U.S. Senate before winning the nomination to run for president. Though he lost the popular vote to the incumbent Cleveland, Harrison prevailed in the electoral college. Four years later, the outcome was reversed. As the nation’s economic health was in decline, Cleveland was able to beat Harrison to become the only president elected to non-consecutive terms.
In 1896 the country saw the election of the last Civil War veteran to be president. William McKinley, another Ohioan, enlisted in the 23rd Ohio Infantry, the same regiment as President Hayes who served as McKinley’s mentor. McKinley saw action with the 23rd at Antietam, Cloyd’s Mountain, Kernstown and other battles. By war’s end he had been promoted to brevet major.
After the war McKinley went to law school and began a successful law career. He got involved in local politics and campaigned for his old friend Rutherford Hayes. When Hayes was elected president, McKinley won election to the House of Representatives. From Congress, he was elected governor of Ohio. From there, McKinley’s next stop was the White House. During his first term, the war veteran guided the country through a new war, this time with Spain. In 1900, McKinley again defeated William Jennings Bryan to win a second term. On March 4, 1901, McKinley was inaugurated for the second time. Like Garfield, the term wouldn’t last long. On September 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, the president was shot. He died eight days later, propelling young Theodore Roosevelt into the White House.
With McKinley’s passing, the presidency would no longer be filled by a man who had seen the Civil War first hand. And it hadn’t just been the men elected president who had served. During that time one vice-president (Henry Wilson under Grant), two losing presidential candidates (George B. McClellan in 1864 and Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880), and three losing vice-presidential candidates (Francis Blair, Jr., in 1868; Benjamin Brown in 1872; and John Logan in 1884) had all been veterans of the war.